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the weird goat milk “law”

If someone says, “hold your horses, there’s an elephant in the room, pigs are flying, the pot is calling the kettle black, and Elvis has left the building,” you don’t wig out. You chill out and open your Bible to what appears to be the weirdest of the weird laws in Scripture.

“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b). What kind of law is this? Was it an idolatrous practice? Or some random dietary law? Or was it about the ethical treatment of animals? After all its cruel to kill a baby goat in the milk which gives it life. Or maybe it wasn’t a law all. Could it be that “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” was an idiomatic expression that was used back in the day?

Like, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” No one takes the saying literally. There was never a time when people threw out their babies with the bathwater! We know that it’s a figure of speech that means: “don’t remove something good while getting rid of something worthless.” It’s an idiom.

Remember Grandpa’s weird sayings? “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” What? “We have cell phones in our hand, Grandpa.” During World War II, to “buy the farm” meant to die; now it means, well, to buy the farm. In processing language, our first default approach is to take words at face value, that is, to take them literally.

“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” is found three times in the Bible. Notice that two are placed immediately after this statement: “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 23:19a; 34:26a). The context emphasizes offering one’s best to the Lord. The boiled goat milk that follows is a wry, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek figure of speech that means: “Don’t offer to God something that you want to get rid of anyway.” It’s kind of like God saying, “Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes? I know very well what’s in that soup offering!”

In the third instance, the boiled goat milk idiom follows a long list of food laws (Deut 14:21d). Although it’s placed within a food context, it’s meaning lines up with the other two: “Don’t cut corners. God is in the details.”

Of course, we don’t use the boiled goat milk expression today, and yet, it’s message still rings true. Have you ever given canned goods, you didn’t want anyway, to a food shelf? Have you ever bypassed a $20 bill to throw a $5 into the offering plate? Have you ever served the Lord with a “that’s good enough” attitude? It’s hard to admit, isn’t it, but it’s boiled goat milk—and the goat is bleating: “God knows it’s not our best.”

By understanding the Bible’s idiomatic expressions, we are no longer faced with a weird law. To “boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” is a ridiculously stupid thing to do—just like giving God “less than your best” is a ridiculously stupid thing to do. God doesn’t want our leftovers or white elephant gifts. So “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). Give your best and “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).  

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